Politics and government

Yemen’s political system is complicated, and sometimes paradoxical. Political alliances depend on many factors, as they do in all states. In Yemen, this is complicated by the strong position of the tribe (al qabila), which is always looking out for tribal (and often conservative) interests. The tribe can be regarded as an extension of the family, reaching far beyond the extended or expanded family. Backed by a strong tribal base, longtime president Saleh has proved a master in balancing the country’s powers. In doing so, Saleh has held the country together in relative peace, but has also created obscurity, widespread corruption and nepotism. This has proved a less favourable environment for progress, investment and innovation.


In tribal societies, decisions are taken in the interest of the family. This is true in all societies, but in tribal societies the family extends well beyond the immediate core family. It encompasses a large group of people sharing a common ancestor, subdivided in tribes and clans with ancestral offspring. Identity is not only individual, it has a strong tribal aspect, resulting in a common identity. An insult directed at, or a pledge made by a member of the tribe can be taken personally by a distant member of the same tribe. Marriage occurs within the tribe, so that possession (of land) remains within the tribe. The tribal sheikh – whether chosen or hereditary – represents the tribe in inter-tribal matters. The sheikhs are supposed to be consulted by rulers of the state in matters concerning the tribe’s territory.

All Yemenis are tribal, although not every Yemeni perceives himself foremost as tribal. Southern Yemenis are a lot less tribal then northerners. City people – or civilians – do not usually call themselves tribal. Indeed, the qaba’il – the plural of qabila – are both a source of distant pride, for their members are considered proud yet stubborn, uneducated, uncivilized farmers from isolated mountain villages. If necessary, however, people refer to their tribe in order to get elected, to get protection, to find a job or to get permission to build a house. The tribes therefore dominate Yemeni politics.

The northern mountains and the eastern plateau have remained largely independent of outside influence. Throughout the centuries, the tribes ruled themselves, in constantly varying alliances. At times, they extended their rule southwards. Dominant throughout Yemen’s history are the tribes of Hamdan, who trace back to Kahlan, son of the progenitor of the (southern) Arab race. Their territories lie in the heartland north and east of Sana’a. The Hamdani tribes are divided into two confederations: the Hashid and Bakil. The current president Saleh is a member of the tribe of Sanhan, belonging to the Hashid. As a result, the tribes of Hashid dominate the government. However, paradoxically, the government does not control the autonomous tribes.


Shura, or consultation, is an important organ in tribal matters. It is an institute that became incorporated in the political Islam after Islamization. It is the Islamic equivalent of consultative democracy. Rulers of states are supposed to consult those with knowledge and authority in important decisions. Rulers of Yemen have practised shura throughout history, thus preventing Yemen from becoming a ‘second’ Afghanistan or Somalia. When at times rulers, such as the last imam, did not practice shura, their rule was short-lived.

The present, formal Majlis-al-Shura (gathering of consultation) came into being with the constitutional change in 2001. The Majlis-al-Shura consists of 111 members, who have all been appointed by the president. As tradition dictates, there are seats for tribal sheikhs, for the judiciary (cadis) and for sayyids, learned men, often descendants of the prophet Mohammad’s family. Constitutionally, the Majlis-al-Shura has an advisory role. Drafts and proposals are passed through the Shura before Parliament takes a vote. The Shura can also have a decisive voice in certain important legislative matters. As its members are appointed, its role and function are not always transparent.


Yemen may be the poorest and least developed country of the Middle East, it boasts the longest tradition of ‘western style’ democracy in the region. The Yemen Arab Republic (yar) already held elections before unification. Since unification, elections have been ‘reasonably’ free and fair. Parliamentary elections were held in 1993, 1997 and 2003, with an increasing turnout of 76% (or six million people) in 2003. President Saleh’s General People’s Congress (gpc) has dominated the 301 seat Parliament since its founding, taking the majority of the votes, with an ever increasing percentage of the vote. However, this majority is obscured by the large number of independent candidates.


Since 1978, president Ali Abdallah Saleh has headed various governments through his General People’s Congress. The gpc has dominated Yemeni politics since its founding in 1990, making Yemen virtually a one-party state. After unification in 1990, Saleh shared some power with South Yemen’s (pdry) dominant socialist party ysp, until a brief, unsuccessful secession war broke out in the South in 1994. After the 1997 elections, Saleh’s party gpc formed a broad coalition with the conservatives of Islah. Since the last elections in 2003, Saleh’s gpc heads the government alone, though still appointing opposition candidates of ysp and Islah to some ministerial posts or as chairmen of the Houses.

Yemen’s most recent cabinet (2005) has a rather technocratic character, with young, foreign educated technocrats holding key posts. This is seen as a measure to emphasize Yemen’s ambition to become a modern state with solid institutions, a transparent bureaucratic infrastructure and a stable state budget, favouring much-needed foreign investment. The current cabinet counts two female ministers, twice as much as in the previous cabinet.



Ali Abdallah Saleh has been governing Yemen since he became president in 1978. Saleh was twice re-elected, in 1999 and in 2006, both times with an absolute majority (97% and 78%). In the last election his contender received nearly a quarter of the vote, the main opposition party Islah joining the united opposition in supporting an alternative candidate.

Saleh’s position in Yemen is undisputed. Saleh enjoys wide popular support throughout the country, although he is less popular with southerners than with his fellow central and northern countrymen. Saleh has positioned himself as a mediator, or deal maker, between Yemen’s various factions. As a tribesman, Saleh receives support from the central and northern tribes. As a townsman, he receives support from the bourgeoisie. His strongest base is the army, from which he rose as an army commander to become president about thirty years ago.

Saleh’s main challenge is transparency. Saleh consults everybody, as Yemen’s rulers traditionally do. Saleh thus practices traditional shura. But it is not always clear who his negotiating partners are, or which body holds the most power: the elected Parliament, the formally appointed Majlis-al-Shura, the powerful army or tribal shura’s behind the scenes. Furthermore, Saleh has surrounded himself with family members holding key posts, or worse, decisive positions behind the scenes. His half brother Ali Mohsen, for instance, is a very powerful army commander, and, according to some Yemenis, the real president.

The lack of transparency around Saleh does not contribute to his legitimacy. Corruption is widespread in Yemen. In 2007, Transparency International rated Yemen 137th on the global list, with a score of only 2.5 (out of 10). This is a decline of 0.2 points from 2004. As a comparison, the list is headed by Finland, Denmark and New Zealand with a score of 9.4. Qatar is the highest scoring Arab state with a score of 6, giving them a 37th place. Yemen’s neighbour Oman scores 4.7 (53rd), Saudi Arabia 3.4 (73rd).

Yemeni Political Parties

GPC- Yemeni politics are dominated by the General People’s Congress (gpc). The gpc has won all of the elections and has formed all governments since the unification. A large number of factions are represented in the gpc, civilians as well as tribals. The gpc lacks an ideology or clear-cut political program, almost in itself resembling a shura. After the last three elections, many independents joined the gpc upon election. Members of the opposition also sometimes join the gpc, as it is the only way to exert influence in Yemeni politics.

Islah-  Literally: reform party. The basis of Islah is tribal, but the doctrine is conservative Islam. Islah can be described as a Muslim brotherhood in Yemen, as it advocates Islamic principles and opposes the widespread corruption in the government. Islah holds a special position in the political landscape, owing to its leader Sheikh Abdallah Al Ahmar, who died in 2007. Al Ahmar was the longtime sheikh, or leader, of the Hashid, the most powerful tribal federation. Under Al Ahmar’s leadership, Islah first allied with the GPC of president Saleh. Islah and Al Ahmar also supported Saleh in all but the last presidential elections. In 2005, Islah allied with a remarkable group of opposition parties, called the Joint Meeting Parties.

There is another face to Islah, that of Abdulmajid Al Zindani. Zindani represents puritan Wahhabi (or Salafi) Islam, originating from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have financed the establishment of so- called ‘scientific institutions’ throughout Yemen, where young people are educated according to Wahhabi beliefs. Some reports speak of students who attend class being offered financial remittance, making Wahhabism a more popular form of Islam then traditional Zaidi Shiism. Al Zindani is a controversial figure, and has been tied to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in western media reports.
YSP-The Yemen Socialist Party, remnant of the former socialist state of South Yemen pdry. The ysp enjoyed strong southern support just after unification, but lost its popularity due to internal strife and the secession war of 1994. The party has remained popular in Aden, but does not enjoy much support elsewhere.


Box: Sheikh Abdallah Al Ahmar was for many decades leader of the tribal confederation of Hashid, one of the dominant factors in tribal politics. His style was one of shrewdness, moderation and mediation. Al Ahmar was a longtime speaker in Parliament and a man of authority and wealth, owning many businesses. It remains to be seen which of his sons will inherit the position and authority of their father. His son Sadiq Al Ahmar – one of the more tribal and conservative of his sons – has taken over his position as tribal sheikh. Sadiq has been trying to end the northern war with the Houthis, accusing the army of furnishing weapons to different tribes, so as to feed the ongoing tribal disputes in the North. His brother Hamid – a foreign educated businessman, and, just like his father, a wealthy man – is more likely to inherit his father’s political position. Hamid is a modern politician who was behind the success of the Joint Meeting Parties.

Box: The Joint Meeting Parties is a modern, unorthodox umbrella organisation of opposition parties. Its main contributors are Islah and ysp, two former enemies united in their opposition to the regime of gpc and president Saleh. Other parties include left-wing groups, Baathists, Nasserists and two Zaidi opposition parties, the conservative Al Haq and the modern upf. The jmp raised a surprising amount of support in the presidential elections of 2007, in which their independent candidate Faysal Bin Shamlan received almost 25% of the vote. The jmp is seen by analysts as the possible birth of civil society in Yemen.

Scope of Government

Most tribesmen carry arms, as a sign of independence and resilience; a pistol in the back pocket, a kalashnikov hanging over the shoulder, and the janbiyyah – the curved dagger – hanging from the colourful, wide belt. In the past decades, the Al Salaam Organisation for Disarmement has proved successful in eradicating the carrying of arms in the main cities. Guns and pistols have more or less disappeared, the janbiyyah being promoted to traditional dress.

However, the reach of Yemeni government does not usually extend into its border regions. In many areas the tribes are still autonomous. In tribal country one can easily come across patrolling pickup trucks transformed into heavily armed vehicles. Tribes traditionally ‘cut’ or block roads in order to receive government funding, or take people hostage so as to pressure the government into funding roads, schools and medical facilities in remote areas. Several tourists have been taken hostage during the last two decades. A large part of Yemen is off-limits to tourists. In areas to the east of Yemen – where one finds the major oil fields – the army regularly fights tribal groups demanding a larger share of the oil revenues.

Human Rights, Civil Society and Media

Yemen’s human rights record is poor. There has been some improvement in women and child rights, in law and in practice. But as a consequence of the war on terror and the guerilla war in the north, the overall situation is deteriorating. Prisoners of war remain in detention or are sentenced to death, often without trial. The press is increasingly curtailed. Newspapers have been shut down, journalists have been jailed, internet sites have been blocked.

As most affiliations are tribal or religious, civil society is weak in Yemen. Most civil organisations are not very well organized, remaining dependent on individuals with language skills and knowledge of and connections with western benefactors. As the country opens up, however, civil organisations are growing in number and in size. There are several successful women organisations in the country, helping women to become financially independent. Some analysts regard the political umbrella of the Joint Meeting Parties as a step towards civil society.

War in the North

In the vicinity of Sa’adah, the army has been fighting a full-scale guerrilla war since 2004. The opposing party are the so-called Houthis, a Zaidi opposition group, followers of Hussein Badr ad-Deen al-Houthi, who died during the first outburst of violence in 2004. The exact number of casualties hitherto is unknown, although thousands have died on both sides. The number of displaced persons is around 100.000, for many houses have been destroyed in the fighting.

The conflict centres around the government penetration of the Sa’adah region, a traditional stronghold of the Zaidis and longtime capital of the imamate. The Houthi movement of believing youth started to rally wide support in the 1990s, as a reaction to the marginalization of the Zaidi religion. Due to the increasing influence of Saudi Wahhabism – many people ‘converting’ to more lucrative Wahhabism – the share of Zaidis in the Yemeni population has decreased from 50% to around 20% in the past three decades. The government repeatedly appointed Wahhabi imams in mosques in Sa’adah, taking away waqf – communal property and tax collection – from the Zaidis. Many Zaidi supporters in Sana’a were taken into custody after fighting erupted in 2004.

The Houthi family is of royal descent. The Yemeni government makes out that the Houthis are a conservative fundamentalist movement that wants to reinstall the old royal imamate. Prior to the outbursts of fighting, the Houthis were made out to be anti-American fundamentalists and were blamed for attacks on the Jewish community in the North. This seems to be an attempt to rally global support for the attacks on the Houthis. However, this image is most probably incorrect, for although the Zaidi sect may be conservative, it is traditionally reasonably moderate and tolerant. The only remaining Yemeni Jews are found in the Zaidi North, where they continued to live alongside the Zaidi tribes after Operation Magic Carpet flew tens of thousands of Yemeni Jews to Israel in the 1950s.

According to the government in Sa’adah, the Houthis are (financially) backed by Iran and Libya. Leading members of the Houthi family have been banned from Yemen, but continue to represent the movement in exile. Yahya Al Houthi – a member of parliament stripped of his parliamentary immunity – now lives in Germany. Early 2007, mediation efforts by the Qatari government stopped the fighting periodically.

In 2007 and 2008, fighting erupted once more, mutual trust being low and both sides apparently have difficulty living up to the Qatari peace agreement. The government reportedly armed opposing Sunni tribes to engage in the fighting. In May 2008, in what is called the ‘fifth war’ in the North, journalists reported the engagement of American commandos and the Republican brigade, commanded by the president’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Foreign Policy

Yemen is of minor geopolitical importance to the outside world. The port of Aden has yielded strategic interest from marine powers throughout history. The rest of the country has remained isolated from the outside world, until the imamate ceased to exist in 1962. Yemen has since been a strong advocate of the Arab cause. In the 1991 Gulf War, Yemen took a neutral stand, emphasizing an Arab solution to the conflict. This was interpreted as support for Saddam Hussein by the members of the so-called ‘coalition’, of which Saudi Arabia was a leading member. As a result, up to a million Yemeni expatriates working in Saudi Arabia were sent back home, plummeting Yemen into economic disarray.

Recently, Yemen has been strengthening its bonds with Arab states. There have been a number of agreements with Saudi Arabia regarding their undemarcated border. Yemen is due to become a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (gcc) in 2016. The country’s economic importance to other Gulf states is minimal, but its political significance is growing, thanks to its large population. Many Arabs trace their history back to Yemen. Its cultural heritage is therefore of major importance.

Since the attacks on the Twin Towers in September 2001, Yemen has sided with the US in the battle against al-Qaeda. Yemen has thus avoided being included in the US ‘axis of evil’, but national support for this stand is very low. Eritrea engaged Yemen in a short armed conflict over the small but strategic Hunaish island in the Red Sea. International mediation concluded in Yemen’s favour.

Yemen has always had friendly ties with the rest of the world. This has resulted in a significant share of foreign aid to Yemen (8.2% of gdp in 1990, decreasing to 2.2% in 2006). Japanese, Chinese and Russians have built roads across the country. European benefactors have contributed much to hospitals and social services, and to the restoration of monumental Yemen.

Al-Qaeda, the US and Terrorism

To its own annoyance, in media publications Yemen is often described as Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland. The bin Ladens migrated to Saudi Arabia (from Wadi Do’an, a valley in the Hadhramawt) in the early nineteenth century. Popular support for al-Qaeda matches that in other Arab states, but as a consequence of the short reach of the state, active al-Qaeda supporters – many of them veterans of the Afghan war – have been roaming the country, at times gaining tribal protection. In 1998, a supposed al-Qaeda cell killed four of their sixteen tourist hostages after being attacked by the army. Al-Qaeda cells bombed the US warship USS Cole in 2000 and the French Tanker Limburg in 2002. Several oil pipelines have been bombed in the eastern lowlands. In 2007, seven Spanish tourists were killed by al-Qaeda gunmen near Marib, and again in 2008, in Marib, two Belgian tourists were killed, together with their Yemeni drivers. In 2008, American buildings in Sana’a were shelled. Yemen and the US are officially co-operating in the battle against al-Qaeda. American secret service agents are believed to be operating in Yemen. The US accused the Yemeni government of being too soft on al-Qaeda after the USS Cole bomber made a spectacular escape from prison for the second time. The US wanted him extradited, but Yemen refused, insisting on the liberation of Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo Bay first.

Banner: ‘Yemen’s economy and society are in danger of collapsing in as few as several years.’ (Robert Burrowes, political analyst and Yemen specialist, Yemen Times 2008)

Banner: ‘They have predicted Yemen’s collapse so many times before, and we are still here. So we take such words with a smile.’ (Mohammad Al Aidarous, Yemeni waterspecialist BRON?)

Banner: ‘Even Osama bin Laden disapproves of terrorist activities in Yemen. According to political and media analyst Nabil Al-Soufi, bin Laden wants Yemen to be a “breeding and training haven and not an area of combat.”’ (Editorial Yemen Times 2008)